It is the year of Our Lord, 2018, and I am crying in the shower again. This time, I am accompanied by Khalid’s debut album American Teen. I sway to his dreamy crooning and let the soap get dangerously close to my eyes. “This is our year,” he says, and somehow I agree, feeling lifted from my daily grief into something not quite happy, per se, but maybe into the audacity of potential gladness. “Wake me up in the spring / While I’m high off my American dream / We don’t always say what we mean / It’s the lie of an American teen.”
Now it’s nighttime, I attempt to recall what specifically there was to mourn today, but instead, I am suddenly transported back to a professor’s office in my sophomore year of college. He asks me how I define America and I say, “anxious,” but maybe I’m really just talking about myself. I don’t remember what specifically there was to mourn today, so much as I am now soapy and pruney and dancing with myself, and I wonder what it means to stage a carnival in a graveyard. This is what it means to be alive now. I correct myself: This is what it has meant to be alive forever. I stage a new memory where my professor asks me how I define America and instead I say, “Surviving every day by staging a carnival in a graveyard. Passing by Ferris wheels on your way to adorn a burial site. Forcing yourself to get on the Tilt-A-Whirl, just for the sake of survival.” He tells me I’m depressed. I wonder who he voted for.
I’ve never really known America personally, but I think we have the same dreams. Some nights, we realize we’re having a nightmare but cannot wake ourselves up. When we finally do, we are sweaty, thrashing, desperate to be alive. Inevitably, the boy sharing our bed does not understand. Some nights, we dream a life so ideal, so wonderfully tender, that we wish to never wake up. And when we do awaken, early and alone, we would like to cry, but we do not. There is not always time for crying.
Somewhere, there is a home video featuring a gaggle of eight-year-olds screaming the chorus to “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. It is a year or two after the Twin Towers fell, but in most ways, we are incapable of feeling their absence. “And I’m proud to be an American,” we belt, opening our throats and closing them around words that we barely understand, “‘Where at least I know I’m free.” We say these words, “American” and “free,” the way we say, “9/11,” trying to sink our teeth into smoke. I wonder if my parents cried, watching us. And if they did, was it because we already looked so American? There, awkwardly assembled on choir risers, an ensemble that proved to be charming in conception, but difficult to execute? There, all missing teeth and locked knees? I don’t remember when the fourth grader passed out and fell off the risers, but I do remember all the older kids just kept singing. The rest of us, so young and soft in wonder — we were little more than personified egg yolks and gaping mouths; the rest of us, so young and soft in wonder: we were extraordinary — we were ready to stop the whole rotation of the earth to see to her health. In this moment, I don’t know who was more American. On good days, I think it was us, the soft ones, stopping in our tracks to see to the wellness of a stranger. On bad days, I think it was the fifth graders, so grown into their motherland that they knew the rules of the game. The show must go on, no matter how many voices get swallowed up in its wake.
I’ve never really known America, but I know she was born on July 4, which makes her a Cancer. I am a Pisces, so we’re supposed to get along. They say she possesses an unusual level of empathy for others. I meet more of her children, Americans, every day. Sometimes they are so good that I almost believe the stars. Mostly, I find myself feeling that the good ones exist more in spite of their mother than because of her.
Does America cry in the shower? Does America still pick at her scabs like I do? We are far too old for the habits of childhood, and yet the way the anxiety boils your insides, sometimes you just can’t help it. And we know what will happen. And here comes the blood anyway.
What did America have for dinner? Was it just a frantic mishmash of trail mix and citrus fruit like me? Is America like me? Does America like me? Do I like her? What is America actually like? What is she made up of? Will she ever change? And what does she dream about? Do her dreams reoccur? Maybe in one everybody chases her? Is there one where all of her teeth fall out? How often does she wake up crying? Does she ever dream about not waking up at all?
By this time, the shower runs cold and a simple piano progression slides Khalid into the closing track of American Teen: “Angels.” The simplicity of the opening lyric, “I’ve been seeing angels / in my living room,” shocks me back into my own body. It’s funny to me, how I have grown up watching my generation be called narcissistic. How so many saw these young people, the product of several decades of mounting panic and anxiety, curl into themselves and labeled them self-centered, the “me generation.” What if, perhaps, we realized (as many members of past generations have before us), that this place was not a home in the way that so many claimed it to be? What if, perhaps, we had the audacity to become our own homes instead? To forge our own tiny nations in an effort to survive the much larger one that so ruthlessly threatens to swallow us whole?
With this, I exit the shower and turn up the title track, “American Teen,” loud enough to feel the bass in my bones, but not loud enough to wake the neighbors, because today I have decided that that is America, or that that is me, or that that is what my home is like. The song closes out with Khalid and, what I imagine to be, a small circle of his close friends — his own little America — singing the chorus accompanied by an acoustic guitar. They raise their voices, saying, “I’m proud to be American,” and maybe, in this soft, quietly hopeful way, for just tonight, I am, too.
Author’s note: Upon publication, I received extremely helpful feedback from Cassandra Myers and others regarding some of the romanticized language in this essay. America was not born, it was stolen from indigenous people and built by Black slave labor and continues to build its legacy on the oppression of these communities, along with undocumented immigrants and many others. This essay exhibits oversights derived from my privilege as a white American born in the states. Please read it with this in mind.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.